The Dutch Influence
19th Century Arrival and Settlement
“Between 1820 and 1840, the number of Hollanders coming to America had averaged fewer than one hundred a year. Between 1847 and 1857 ten times that number arrived, nearly half of whom made west Michigan their destination.”
–from Dutch in Michigan, p.7
One of the largest cultural groups to immigrate to southwest Michigan during the second half of the 19th century were those hailing from the Netherlands. Of those Europeans who journeyed to the United States during the 19th century, Dutch immigrants represented a relatively small percentage. Rather than fleeing to the United States because of persecution, famine or from a lack of economic opportunity as the Irish, Germans, Polish and Russians did, the religious hardliners that comprised the early settlers in west Michigan were primarily motivated by ideological differences with the Dutch monarchy, and their perceived loss of social privileges, which they believed they were entitled to according to the strict, orthodox teachings they followed. Due in large part to the progressive reforms made to the state church by William I, many of the early Dutch immigrants (Seceders) who came to west Michigan did so not because of deprivations, but rather out of protest of the state church’s efforts to become more tolerant after gaining independence in 1813.
“Much of the Seceders’ resentment was aimed at the equal treatment the government had guaranteed to Catholics, Baptists and Jews, who were accorded state support for their religious and educational activities and enjoyed social and legal rights often lacking in other European nations. One could say that the people who led boatloads of Hollanders to Michigan were among the few American immigrants to flee a spirit of tolerance in their native land.”
–from Dutch in Michigan, p.3
A generation or two later, after the initial wave of immigration by the zealous Seceders, the motives of those immigrating tended to be less about religious disputes than about financial goals. Many rural Hollanders found the acquisition of land in their home country difficult as there was a shortage. The influence of Dutch settlement has played a significant role in the cultural and economic development of cities like Grand Rapids, Holland and Kalamazoo (aka the Dutch Triangle). Even after more than a century of acculturation and the decline of spoken Dutch, to read or hear a Dutch surname in Kalamazoo continues to be a common occurrence.
The van Raalte Kolonie
One of the two most outspoken leaders of the Seceder movement was Albertus C. van Raalte, the co-author of a pamphlet published in 1846 called Landverhuizing (Emigration). In it, van Raalte and Anthonie Brummelkamp outlined their opposition to the state church of the Netherlands, and their rationale for their exit from their homeland. Brummelkamp eventually chose to stay put, but van Raalte left in the summer of 1846, hoping to settle in Wisconsin, where ostensibly he and his followers could be left alone to practice their hardline brand of Calvinist Christianity. But, van Raalte’s plans for a new homeland went askew while in Detroit, when he discovered that Dutch Catholics were also settling in Wisconsin, a circumstance which drove van Raalte, an anti-Catholic, to reconsider his plan. He instead, heard about available land in the uncultivated wilderness of western Michigan, and after consulting with William Montague Ferry (founder of Grand Haven), chose to settle in what is now Holland, Michigan. Van Raalte would later go on to found Hope College, and play a role in the theological schism between the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.
The Paulus den Bleyker Party
Three years after van Raalte founded Holland to the north, another caravan of Hollanders set out from Amsterdam to purchase lands in either Illinois or Iowa. The group of twenty eight was led by a wealthy financier and dikes contractor named Paulus den Bleyker. In October of 1850, the group stopped in Kalamazoo, and were quarantined after local officials believed several of den Bleyker’s party were contagious with cholera. Indeed, several individuals perished, including den Bleyker’s best friend and daughter, but it was during this time in detention that den Bleyker chose to put down roots in the up and coming village. Den Bleyker, less religious than van Raalte, was more interested in commercial ventures than in forming an insular, religious enclave, making Kalamazoo a far more appealing destination than a rural setting. In 1855, den Bleyker purchased the home and 180-acre farm of Governor Epaphroditus Ransom for $12,000, later platting the land and selling lots for upwards of $615. He also bought land in Schoolcraft from Hezekiah G. Wells, the prominent lawyer. Paulus’ son John and grandson Harry would follow in his footsteps as successful real estate developers, with John platting much of the Eastside of town and Harry carving out the Parkwood Addition.
From there on, Dutch immigrants began to pour into western Michigan from 1847 to 1857, seeking the same kind of success as den Bleyker, whose community prestige and respectability resulted in the nickname, the “Dutch Governor”. As with other cultural groups, a network of immigration developed that helped to streamline the large numbers of Dutch-speaking laborers arriving in Kalamazoo during this period. There were, of course, the early Reformed churches, the most influential institution on the lives of Dutch immigrants. “As early as 1850, they organized the First Reformed Church in Kalamazoo. In 1869 the Christian Reformed Church was established. Calling themselves the “True Dutch Reformed Church,” they built a church at the corner of John and Walnut streets.” (Museography, Fall 2002, p.10) Newspapers such as the Kalamazoo Holland Weekly, Teeken-der-Tijden (Sign of the Times) and the Hollandsche Amerikaan helped to keep immigrant families culturally connected and informed of political, social and religious matters. Social organizations like the HOHV (Hollandsche Onderling Hulp Veringing), a mutual aid society established in 1870, were founded to assist immigrants with culture shock and language barriers. The HOHV was active until their dissolution in 1959. The Holland Workingmen’s Association formed in the late 1870s to provide community members with resources and opportunities. Dutch cultural traditions blended into the fabric of the community through expression and celebration.
“They moved as part of an extended chain forged by family and church. They followed folkways they had known back home, and, despite the strangeness of the new land, found much that was familiar to them.”
–from Dutch in Michigan, p.8
Most of these Dutch immigrants, accounting for only two percent of Holland’s overall population, originated mostly from two primary sections of the country–the lowlands of Zeeland and the northeastern tip (Friesland, Drenthe, Overijssel, Groningen) that lies adjacent to Germany. They came to farm Kalamazoo’s mucklands, which was an ideal occupation for those with a background in agricultural practices. The Dutch brought their hardy work ethic and industrious spirit to various occupations and industries that grew in the post-Civil War period. Arend J. Bos led a successful blacksmithing business into the 20th century, DeVisser & Co. excelled in the hardware trade and Jerry Hoekstra’s grocery store at 625 Portage Street lasted from 1867 to 2016. J. S. Dunkley sold medicines and condiments made of celery. The large number of Dutch immigrants became central to Kalamazoo’s economic prosperity. By 1900, those born in the Netherlands or their children accounted for roughly 25 percent of Kalamazoo’s population. In 1892, the number of “Holland Reformed” churches numbered five, matching the number of Methodist churches.
“Towns like Kalamazoo, with their established Dutch communities and job potential, proved highly attractive to Dutch immigrants during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. There the new arrival found shelter, a tie to the past, a sense of community, and of most importance the promise of a future. For most immigrants the urban way of life was satisfying, and the return to the farm was postponed indefinitely. For others the availability of cheap marshland in and around Kalamazoo proved too great an attraction and their return to the land precipitated the city’s rather unique market gardening industry.”
–John A. Jakle and James O. Wheeler
The northside and southside of the city became home to many Dutch families because of its proximity to the swampy lands situated north of the Michigan Central railroad tracks and those along the Axtell Creek Valley. By the 1870s, the cultivation of celery was the area’s primary crop, with Dutch immigrants leading the way in its production. Cornelius De Bruyn, a gardener, who came here from The Netherlands in 1866, developed the modern type of celery from the earlier soup celery. Later, as the celery industry waned in importance, many Dutch families transitioned to selling bedded flowers, a business that continues to thrive into the 21st century. Kalamazoo’s paper industry, developed in the late 19th century, provided factory work for thousands of Dutch families well into the 20th century.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, August 2023